A mostly acoustic show (people still talk about the Neil Young/Crazy Horse year--decidedly and wonderfully unacoustic), this festival has always been identified through its connection with Jackson Browne. His ability to bring in an eclectic array of big name acts and his desire to raise money and awareness for Sedona's Verde Valley School and its Native American Scholarship Fund seem to have become his own personal mission.
Many performers graciously lend their names and talent to various causes and benefits, but Browne's involvement is more intimate and involved from beginning to end. He has the most input on determining who will perform, he makes the phone calls and the follow-up, and he plays host to audience and performers alike.
Not only the star, he is the driving force behind this festival. This stems from his discovery of the Verde Valley School in 1989 when he was searching for a school for his son. Anne Salzmann, who now supervises the school's faculty and staff, says, "That's when Jackson fell in love with the school, which was founded to bring together people from different races and religions."
His belief in this college-preparatory program, whose stated mission is to "further intercultural understanding through field trips, creativity and the arts," has fully manifested through his support of the scholarship fund. Monies support young Native Americans, who, collectively, have the highest college dropout rate after the first semester among all minorities. Proceeds from the benefit, this year expected to be $50-90,000, will help them make the transition from reservation to classroom.
Obviously it's a worthy cause, but it is Browne's personal touch and commitment to the school that has helped to make the Verde Valley Festival one of the country's premier annual feel-good events.
Bruce Cockburn agrees. His performance on Saturday will be his sixth. "I like the whole feel of it," he said in a recent telephone interview. "The interaction with other artists, the setting, the hospitality. Everybody has a good time and you can really feel the beauty of this place."
When Cockburn first performed several years ago, his relationship with Browne was professional--two talented singer/songwriters devoting a lot of time and energy to causes close to their respective hearts. Cockburn now arranges his schedule as well as he can to accommodate his place on the bill, where he has a standing invitation to perform. Cockburn's connection with Browne is now personal as well as professional, and he, too, enjoys being identified with Verde Valley. Cockburn, like many of the festival musicians, will be staying through the weekend and looks forward to the possibility of spontaneous collaboration with other players.
As an added bonus, the festival has expanded into a two-day format. Held on school grounds in a natural amphitheater and surrounded by Sedona's spectacular red rock landscapes, this year's lineup, in addition to Cockburn, will feature Keb Mo, the Indigo Girls, Nanci Griffith and Trisha Yearwood, Indigenous, Patty Griffin, Ben Harper and Ulali.
The music and magic will also extend to musicians who may not be as well known. Two acts that will enjoy at least some local recognition and support are the Joel Rafael Band, which has regularly gigged in Flagstaff over the years, and Sedona's Michelle Branch, a 17-year-old singer/songwriter who has been attending the festival since she was 10.
Rafael won "new songwriter of the year" kudos at 1995's Kerrville Folk Festival and is joined by his teenage daughter, Jamaica, on violin. His story songs and sound evoke warm memories of Steve Goodman. His third CD, Hopper, is out on Inside Records, a label started by Browne for Native American songwriter and spoken-word artist John Trudell.
Branch, a rising local star currently negotiating her first recording contract, actually wondered aloud last year, "Wouldn't it be really cool if next year I got to play on that stage, too?" Such is the stuff of festival.